El Norte

It’s been awhile since I’ve updated (sorry, Mom). After my parents’ visit I settled into, more or less, a routine, writing papers and the like. However, I’ve finally returned to adventuring! It is now my final month in Chile, so I’m going into panic mode, trying to run around and do as much as possible before my return to the north.
The new marathon kicked off two weekends ago with a program trip to San Pedro de Atacama, a desert town of 2000 inhabitants a little over 1500 kilometers north of Santiago, right at the borders of Argentina and Bolivia. Its incredibly dry climate (the driest place in the world) left ancient artifacts in great condition, making it one of the most archeologically significant areas in Chile. The dryness (only 1-2 millimeters of rain per year in some spots), combined with the altitude (2400m/7900ft above sea level) make it one of the clearest skies in the world as well. Needless to say, just looking into the sky at night is an unforgettable experience, with the Milky Way, planets, satellites and infinite stars on prominent display.

Very dry
Most of the program focused on seeing the other-worldly landscapes while learning about the region’s natural history and processes (not as boring as it sounds). San Pedro and the surrounding desert are in a basin between the Andes and coastal mountain ranges, which used to be a giant salt lake. Most of that has evaporated, leaving salt flats and some lagoons, the saltiest of which was our first stop. Its concentration is similar to that of Dead Sea, so of course it was obligatory to get in to experience the super buoyancy (except for the sane, like myself, who felt fifty degrees was a little too chilly).
Those smiles are forced. Also, they’re not standing
We spent our second day in the Reserva Nacional los Flamencos (National Flamingo Reserve), spreading throughout the basin and the surrounding mountains. Our first stop in the salt flats was to see, as you might imagine, flamingos. Much like the lagoon we had visited the previous day, the shallow Laguna Chaxa is more brine than water in which almost nothing can survive, except for sea monkeys. We watched the flamingos feed in the lagoon and then headed up to Lagunas Miscanti and Miñiques, which overlook the basin from an extra few thousand feet. Unlike the desert basin, the mountains receive precipitation, and we arrived to a fresh layer of snowfall at the lagoon. We had a better view of it than the brochure photographer with a rarely seen white-capped mountain looming over the glassy surface of the water.

Everybody was free to decide what to do on the morning of their third day. Most decided to go sandboarding, and while I was tempted, the prospect of visiting a geyser/hot spring park won me over. This was despite that the van picked us up at 4:00am, we would be about 14,000 feet above sea level (potential altitude sickness) and it was going to be really, really cold. So I, with three other people from AU, dragged myself out from under my three down comforters to the bitter desert night air, chewing coca leaves (they’re legal) to preempt the altitude’s ills and wearing as many layers as possible without ending up like Ralphie’s little brother in A Christmas Story.
The second hat didn’t really do anything
Our two hour drive up mountain roads was a surreal enough experience. Never had I experienced such absolute darkness, where it was impossible to see anything outside of the van’s high beams. I had no idea what the terrain looked like until we descended the mountain in daylight. We pulled into the park as the sky started showing hints of blue with Venus (I think) and other planets (I have no idea how to identify them) shining brightly over the mountaintops to the east, and the occasional shooting star flitting across the still black western sky. As the group spilled out of the van, our guide informed us that it was about 20 degrees below 0 (or in Fahrenheit: 5 below). Really cold. Fun fact: we were essentially in the crater of a super volcano, much like Yellowstone, that if it erupts will cause another ice age.
Exploding Geyser

As we navigated around the bubbling vents we learned about the park’s spiritual significance to the local indigenous group who use it to communicate with their ancestors. Then, as direct sunlight broke into the crater, the geysers heated up and began their main eruption. The water only made it about a meter into the air, but still fascinating to watch. After learning more about the site’s history we went for a swim in the volcanic hot springs next to the geyser field. The absurd cold made the six feet between my clothes and the hot spring seem like a very long run. We checked the temperature after; it was -11 degrees Celsius (about 12 degrees Fahrenheit). However, it was definitely worth it as we finally warmed up in the 100 degree water.
In our descent from the volcanic mountaintop, we stopped to learn about the fauna that somehow lives at such high altitudes: vicuñas (in the same family as llamas and alpacas, as well as guanacos in southern Chile), birds, squirrel-rabbit hybrids and pumas (we didn’t see these), the extinction dangers they face and the local efforts to save them. We also stopped at a village of about 40 people for homemade goat cheese empanadas, which are the best I’ve eaten in Chile (and I’ve eaten a lot). Finally, after a long day, we returned to the hotel at 11am, before the group’s less adventurous members even woke up.

The lake is frozen over
I took a long nap, ate lunch and then met up with the group for our final outing of the trip: to Death Valley and the Moon Valley, the latter named so because its surface is similar to the moon’s, leading NASA to use it for equipment tests in the past. These valleys are also the aforementioned driest places in the world. Some areas actually haven’t recorded rain for decades. We first climbed Death Valley’s dunes and then moved to the Moon Valley to watch the sunset. That day was a gift for me, getting to see sunrise and sunset in two terrains vastly different from anything I had seen before.
Death Valley
Black Sand Dune: Death Valley
Moon Valley

Sadly we (or at least I) didn’t have more time to explore the town and other areas around it. There’s a lot more to learn, especially culturally because of the strong indigenous presence. Also, it’s just a great town to be in. It epitomizes the phrase buena onda (literally: good wave. Roughly: great vibes). The tour guide said it’s because of the high lithium concentration in the dust, so breathing it in makes everybody happy (this is also where most of the world’s lithium supply comes from). I also think coming from smoggy Santiago to clean, breathable air played a major part in that (the city’s air quality leaves much oxygen to be desired).
My time in San Pedro was shorter than I would like, so it looks like I’ll have to add it to my “return” list… Just like everywhere else in Chile. The trip was a great break from the city pace (which is still slower than DC’s), and reinforced something very important for me: take a deep breath before you move on. This was literal, because you have to spend a day or two breathing very deeply (and drinking coca tea) to get used to altitude, but it helps you slow down and take in wherever you are. I’ll have to remember this in my hectic final weeks in Santiago to remember to take in everything I’m doing and enjoying that instead of worrying about doing every last thing and missing out on the current enjoyment.
Besides, if I miss anything, I’ll be back sooner or later…

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